News : 2018

"Edmonton Artist Clay Ellis Showcases a Range of Techniques in ‘Amuse-Bouches & Mintz’"
Chelsea Novak - Arts and Film Editor VUE Weekly
11/28/2018

Every seasoned artist goes on a journey—be it literal or figurative—to develop their own unique style. The road that led Edmonton artist Clay Ellis to his new exhibition, Amuse-Bouches & Mintz, started in his hometown of Medicine Hat. When he was young, he worked at Plainsman Clay, where he had access to all the clay he wanted, and started to build ceramic sculptures. Eventually he started incorporating concrete, then steel, and acrylic paint and polyurethane. 

 

Ellis explains that it was his job at Plainsman Clay that led him to the Banff School of Fine Arts, where he took an intense summer course in ceramics. It was that course that prompted him to continue with other arts courses and workshops.

While the sculptural pieces in Amuse-Bouches & Mintz fit on small podiums, Ellis typically works at a much larger scale (hence amuse-bouches, a French term for small appetizers that provide just a little taste of what the chef has to offer). He explains that it was his desire to work at a larger scale that led him to concrete and polyurethane.

“It went from sort of small scale ceramic sculptures to large scale ceramic sculptures, and with that … the complexity of working on large scale ceramic things got in the way of the speed at which I wanted to work, so I started making molds for the ceramic pieces, and then I started making molds of polyurethane, which meant that I could cast concrete into it,” he says.

He was also welding armatures for use in his ceramic sculptures or to make molds, and that’s how he got into working with steel.

“I ran into a group of people that were working in welded steel and that sort of took me for a 20-year journey, which was of interest,” he says. “But the closer I got to 40, the more it seemed that, that was going to be either taxing on my body or on everything else. So I started working on a series of polychromatic sculptures and that introduced me to a whole range of new materials.”

At that point, Ellis was incorporating colour into his sculptures by painting flat and creating what were essentially decals to be transferred onto part of the sculpture. But then famous American painter Kenneth Noland—known for his use of flat colour and simple shapes—approached Ellis about collaborating.

Ellis was working on a series of ceramic sculptures at that point—a toilet factory in Medicine Hat had invited him to cut up toilet parts—and Noland had seen one at an exhibition.

“That was my introduction to really working with colour in my pieces,” Ellis says. “Up until that point, it had been only sort of local colour, in a way. It was just sort of tonal variations on forms, just to sort of distinguish one element from another, and then working for him [Noland], it had to be about colour.”

Looking at the pieces in Amuse-Bouches & Mintz, it’s hard to imagine Ellis working without it. Noland’s influence also shows, as some of the pieces seem to allude to his bullseye paintings—except that Ellis’ colours are far more vibrant and some of the paint has actually been molded so that it’s three dimensional.

 

Ellis says the technical aspect of his craft drives a lot of what he does, and the exhibition offers evidence of that, as the pieces in Amuse-Bouches & Mintz provide examples of the many techniques he’s developed over the years. He points out one sculpture, “Walkenstick,” that, among other things, incorporates metal, yellow acrylic on polyurethane that’s been manipulated to form a wavy shape (and then affixed to the metal using special industrial-strength tape), and acrylic filled with a substrate to create a hyper-embossed element on the sculpture (the squiggly red things).

 

Ellis also points out that the sculptures and flat pieces all use the same shapes.

“And it’s virtually the same process, except that with these [the sculptures], I either create a vacuum that leaves a hollow that I can put a material into, and then it sets, and with these [the paintings], I can put a very thin plastic membrane over a hollow shape, and then push paint into it, and it leaves a paint that has … the most thickness in the middle and the least on the ends,” he explains.

Ellis describes the resulting effect as photographic, and it’s easy to pick out in his “Confections” series.

The pieces in Amuse-Bouches & Mintz were also inspired by 1930s cartoons—the second half of the exhibit name is after cartoonist Charles Mintz.

“A lot of those drawings were based on that idea of that really simple animated imagery,” he says. “I always feel there’s a real connection between some of the early animated cartoons, just because of … that approach to making a splat mark, or making a fast mark—all of those little things that animate cartoons.”